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Whidbey mayors outpace their counterparts in pay

When it comes to pay, Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson towers above his counterparts at similar-sized cities across Washington state.

And in towns twice the size of the Village by the Sea, Samuelson is also head-and-shoulders above most other mayors across the state, according to a Record review of the salaries of the 50 top elected officials in those towns.

Samuelson’s pay has been the subject of intense scrutiny since early July, when controversy over the mayor’s compensation package spilled out of city hall.

It was then that public awareness of internal discord over the mayor’s pay became public. Langley City Treasurer Debbie Mahler had asked the county prosecutor to investigate alleged “improper actions” by Samuelson amid her concerns that he was getting paid for vacation time he had not earned.

The city council is expected to approve a revised pay ordinance for the mayor at the council’s meeting next week that spells out Samuelson’s pay and benefits package. An earlier ordinance that said Samuelson was entitled to the same benefits as city department heads left open the possibility that the mayor could accrue vacation days, comp time and sick leave — a scenario that attorneys outside the city deemed unlawful.

Langley council members later said they never intended to classify Samuelson as a city employee, despite such language in the ordinance they passed in November 2008.

The council has raised the pay for the mayor of Langley position five times since 2006. Samuelson’s current pay — budgeted at $53,532 — puts him at the top of the compensation list for all cities in Washington that have a population of 1,500 or less (Langley has an estimated population of 1,115).

He also leads all other mayors in pay in towns with a population two or three times the size of Langley, with just one exception: Coupeville, the town that served as a model for the Langley mayor’s compensation package.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard has an annual salary of $63,756, according to the 2010 salary survey conducted by the Association of Washington Cities.

Samuelson and Conard are paid more because they are considered “full-time” mayors, and have taken over much of the duties of a paid city administrator or manager.

Langley already had a city administrator when Samuelson was elected in 2007.

Samuelson, however, announced a plan to restructure city hall during his first year in office, and said he would eliminate the city administrator’s position and handle much of the day-to-day chief executive duties when he took office in 2008, with the help of an administrative assistant.

In September 2008, the city council nearly doubled his pay to $31,000 from that earned by prior mayor Neil Colburn.

In November 2008, noting the many hours being worked by Samuelson and expressing concerns about possible burnout, the council increased the mayor’s pay to $51,513. The council used the base pay for its department heads when determining the mayor’s salary level, using the total budget for the administration as a guide. Without a city administrator still on staff, that left more funds available for the mayor’s pay.

Samuelson also currently receives a benefits package of roughly $18,000.

Not so in other cities

Beyond Langley and Coupeville, none of the mayors at the three dozen cities contacted by the Record receive benefits such as health insurance.

“He gets nothing else,” Millwood City Treasurer Debbie Matkin said of Millwood Mayor Dan Mork. “He gets to say he’s the mayor.”

Samuelson’s actual salary for 2010 is $50,855, due to reductions in employee pay that were made earlier because of Langley’s beleaguered budget.

Most mayors of small towns in Washington are paid much less.

Washington has 92 cities and towns with populations between 5,000 and 715, and only 17 mayors in those towns make more than $10,000. Six receive no pay at all for serving as mayor.

Though most of those mayors are considered “part-time,” interviews with officials at city halls in nearly three dozen cities with populations of fewer than 2,000 say their elected mayors put in more hours than those just allotted for city council sessions and other meetings.

Dee Roberts, clerk-treasurer for the city of South Bend, said Mayor Kirk Church was getting paid $400 a month before the council doubled his pay.

“He was retired, so he was able to devote himself to the job full-time,” Roberts said. “Over time, he eventually was working five days a week, at least 40 hours a week.”

The South Bend council decided to increase his pay in 2006.

“Because of his dedication and his hours at work, and his eagerness to attend to the meetings required of a mayor, they felt he deserved $800 a month,” she said.

A later grassroots effort to roll back the mayor’s pay — in case a new mayor would take office and not want to work full-time — fizzled.

People in the town of 1,740 expect their mayor to be at city hall, Roberts added.

“Believe me, people call here all hours of the day and night for him. Even on Saturday and Sunday,” Roberts said.

South Bend does not have a city administrator. But that’s true for most small cities in Washington.

According to the Association of Washington Cities, the city clerk handles much of the day-to-day administrative work in smaller towns and cities across the state.

In towns of fewer than 1,500 in Washington, only five have full-time city administrators.

A few small cities, such as Tieton and Roslyn, have part-time administrators.

In Roslyn, the city is now considering doing without an administrator.

Roslyn Clerk-Treasurer Amber Shallow said the town’s mayor decided to waive her stipend because of the city’s budget problems.

“We were facing a two-week furlough,” Shallow said.

Even with the mayor’s reduction in pay and other cuts, employees still needed to take a one-week furlough because of budget problems.

The next thing to go will likely be the city’s part-time administrator, she said.

“It’s very likely it will go away at the end of the year,” Shallow said.

Pay cut not on the table

The Langley City Council won’t be considering any decrease to the pay ordinance next week.

That’s because the state constitution forbids any decrease in pay during the current term of an elected official.

The new ordinance is expected to cover only the salary for Samuelson’s current term.

Some on South Whidbey, though, have asked the council to expand the pay provision to cover anyone who is elected as mayor of Langley, so the salary won’t be a special deal for Samuelson only.

People who think the arrangement smacks of favoritism, however, don’t understand the issue entirely, said City Councilman Robert Gilman.

Gilman said the pay structure that has been set up provides a base salary for a part-time mayor, and it gives the city “flexibility” no matter who is elected when Samuelson’s current term expires.

The only way to allow for the potential of either a full-time or a part-time mayor, he said, is “to create a system that resets to the base salary at the start of each term.”

The incoming mayor can then decide if the job will be full-time or part-time. If the council agrees, it can raise the pay to full-time compensation.

But that begs the question: What if someone runs hoping to land the pay of a full-time mayor, but the council doesn’t increase the pay after the election?

“The council either responds to that or they’re going against the sentiment of the people, and will pay the political price for that,” Gilman said.

In a recent memo to his fellow council members, Gilman said a broader discussion is needed on the role of the mayor. He would not say whether that discussion should happen now or much later.

“We’re not recommending one way or another. We want the full council to weigh in on that,” he said.

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